A recent decision by a district judge in Carson City indicates that Nevada courts are willing to overrule Nevada’s government agencies in order to protect the state’s workers.
Voters increased the minimum wage by referendum in 2006
In 2006, Nevada voters voted to amend the Nevada Constitution’s minimum wage provisions. Article XV, Section 16 now states employers must pay a wage of not less than $5.15 per hour if the employer provides health benefits of $6.15 per hour if they employer does not provide health benefits. The minimum wage is actually $7.25 per hour without providing health benefits and $8.25 with health benefits to comply with the federal minimum wage. The Nevada Constitution states that if the employer chooses to pay the lower wage and offer health insurance they cannot charge more than a certain portion of the employee’s pay. “Offering health benefits within the meaning of this section shall consist of making health insurance available to the employee for the employee and the employee’s dependents at a total cost to the employee for premiums of not more than 10 percent of the employee’s gross taxable income from the employer.” Nev. Cons. Art. XV Section 16(A). The language seems clear, right? Apparently not.
Where there is the slightest bit of ambiguity, a lawsuit will soon follow
Of course, employers would want to interpret this provision to mean that they could charge employees for health insurance up to 10% of all gross taxable income, including tips and other gratuities. It’s not an illogical interpretation since tips are a large part of some employee’s income and taxes must be paid on tips and hourly wages. But, the problem is, the Constitutional language clearly states that the 10% calculation only applies to gross taxable income “from the employer.” It is these three little words that spurred one big lawsuit.
In Hancock v. the Nevada Labor Commissioner, the Plaintiff challenged the Nevada Department of Labor’s implementing regulation which stated that “gross taxable income” for the purposes of calculating health insurance costs included all income reflected in a W-2 including “tips, bonuses, and other compensation.” NAC 608.104(C). The Plaintiff, Mr. Hancock, argued that the Constitution means what it says: that the only income that can be considered for calculating the cost of health insurance is that income from the employer. The Nevada Labor Commissioner argued that the language of the Constitution really meant “all income attributable to the employer” including tips which are earned only because the employer provides the job. The Court found that the language was so clear and that the Labor Commission wanted to simply write out the phrase “from the employer” which was not within their rights, or even the Court’s rights to do. The Court noted that bonuses or other compensation could certainly count as part of the 10% calculation if the employer pays them, but that tips do not come “from the employer” as the language requires. Notably, the Court pointed out that finding tips to be a proper part of the calculation for health insurance costs would go against the whole point of the amendment which was to provide cost effective health insurance largely at the expense of the employer.
The Labor Commission’s position was not unreasonable, it was just wrong in light of the plain language of the Constitution. As the Commissioner pointed out, not including tips in the 10% cost of health insurance provides a great advantage to tipped employees that non-tipped employees do not receive. In Las Vegas, tips contribute much to the income for so many jobs, that I have to agree, the Constitution’s language does provide an advantage to tipped employees, who often make much more money than strict hourly or salaried employees. As a former cocktail waitress, I can vouch for this. It is unlikely the voters were aware of the ambiguity when the Amendment was voted upon at the polls. Tips are part of income for which taxes have to be paid, so it is unclear to me why the Constitution would make such a distinction. On the other hand, tips can be unreliable so maybe the idea was that people can only afford to pay insurance based on income that’s guaranteed. But in a right to work1)some might say "fire" state, no income is really guaranteed…
A ruling such a this is a huge deal in Nevada with so many casino dealers, casino hosts, cocktail waitresses, bartenders, valets, bellhops, and countless other tipped jobs who make up such a huge part of our labor force. I suspect that casinos and other employers of these job categories will do some major lobbying to get the Constitutional amendment changed to better suit their financial needs. A more inclusive definition of income means that employers can charge employees more and pay less for health insurance. I assume that 10% of a minimum wage salary does not entirely cover the cost of health insurance these days, so any additional money that employers can collect from their workers would directly benefit their bottom line. Based on the plain language of the Constitutional amendment, the judge got it right. Plain language rules over all else, right or wrong. For now, the regulation cannot be enforced.
The Labor Commissioner lost on a second issue as well
A second regulation, indicating that employers only had to “offer” health insurance to lower paid employees, rather than actually “provide” it was also declared invalid. NAC 608.100(1). The Plaintiff argued that the whole point of the Constitutional amendment was that employers need to “provide” health insurance, not just “offer” it. The Labor Commission argued that “offering” insurance is “providing” it and all that they were required to do was make health insurance available. The Court disagreed and found in favor of the Plaintiff noting that the amendment requires employers to “provide, furnish, and supply” health insurance rather than just offer it to ensure that employees are in fact insured. As such, the regulation was also declared invalid and its enforcement postponed.
Both of these decisions relied on strict interpretation of the constitutional amendment, and in my opinion the Court made the right decision. When the language is clear, the amendment must be applied according to what it says.
But it is interesting that the Labor Commission would create implementing regulations that were somewhat brazenly contradictory to the plain language of the Constitution. We will keep an eye out for any appeals to see how this plays out.
Want to learn more? KNPR recently had a nice discussion.
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